Van Ens: Hit the Second Amendment’s bull’s-eye
Ask a U.S. citizen what the Second Amendment stands for. Some respond this amendment protects an individual’s right to carry a gun. Like a shooter who misses the target, they are confused as to the amendment’s scope and intent.
Historically, the Second Amendment safeguards the citizens’ right through the states’ efforts to recruit armed militias that defend our nation. In 1939, Robert H. Jackson, who served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s solicitor general, maintained the Second Amendment is “restricted to the keeping and bearing of arms by the people collectively for their common defense and security.” Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s nominee for the Supreme Court in 1989, then agreed, saying this amendment works “to guarantee the right of states to form militia, not for individuals to bear arms.” On target, Bork later missed the mark as to what the Second Amendment allows.
Granted, its stilted expression blurs the amendment’s meaning. It reads: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Constitutional framers were wary of growing a federal government that usurped the rights of states to defend themselves. Consequently, the federal army remained small. When President Thomas Jefferson left office in 1809, federal troops numbered a little more than 12,000. Most patrolled the western frontier, consisting of territories east of the Mississippi River, which included the Ohio River Valley. There Native Americans fought encroaching white pioneers. Federal troops protected white settlers who headed West through the Cumberland Water Gap.
When a foreign adversary attacked the U.S., colonials assumed states had the right to raise volunteer militias to defend the nation. States fiercely protected their rights to draft, fund and provide leaders for local militias.
States expressed slight, if any, concern about the federal government infringing on citizens by denying them the right to carry a gun. The colonial U.S. was an agricultural economy. Farmers hunted game to supplement harvested crops. Children 10 years and older fired muskets to kill deer while their parents worked the land. Thomas Jefferson shared the cultural assumption that the U.S. would prosper with 10-year-olds trained to fire muskets.
Historian Garry Wills “pointed out that the Second Amendment had everything to do with the common defense and nothing to do with hunting: ‘One does not bear arms against a rabbit.’”
Since the 1970s, the National Rifle Association has turned the Second Amendment’s meaning on its head. It cleverly treats the opening to the amendment about arming militias as a preface to its alleged main punchline: every citizen has the right to carry a gun.
The NRA’s grammatical hatchet separates the amendment’s two clauses. The second clause is wrongly elevated about alleged gun rights, casting aside state militias’ right to bear arms.
When the NRA kept its national headquarters in Washington D.C. instead of moving to Colorado Springs in the late 1970s, it placed a motto on its headquarters’ doors, making muddy the Second Amendment’s original meaning. The NRA separated the second clause from the first in its motto posted on the door: “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”
Historian Jill Lepore traces the NRA’s slippery slide to reshape the Second Amendment. In 1982, Utah’s Republican Senator Orin Hatch headed the Judiciary Committee that passed a report: The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
Hatch’s committee spun a convoluted constitutional argument that’s off-target. “What the Subcommittee [Hatch chaired] on the Constitution uncovered was clear — and long lost — proof that the second amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for the protection of himself, the family, and his freedoms,” scoffs historian Lepore, who rejects this faulty historical reading.
Many conservative citizens accept this unconventional interpretation of an alleged older, long-lost interpretation of the constitution’s “original meaning” regarding their gun rights. “Evangelicals tend to oppose restrictions on gun ownership,” reported NBC News on September 4, 2019, “and prefer having guns in the hands of ‘good guys,’ schoolteachers, security guards and law-abiding citizens.”
The NRA stacked the deck with handpicked pundits to support their false claim. “Of twenty-seven law review articles published between 1970 and 1989 that were favorable to the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment,” reports historian Lepore, “at least 19 were written by authors employed or represented by the NRA or other gun groups.”
The NRA violates the Second Amendment’s original intent: the right of states to arm their militias.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.